Bushfire!


Fires—130 of them—ravaged much of New South Wales in January of 1994. Nearly 1.5 million acres burned, many in blazes set by arsonists. After the flames, however, came a new understanding of the things in life that matter most.

SYDNEY—“Flames were shooting 50 feet into the air. They were about 15 yards off. I could feel the heat on my face. That’s hot enough to know what firefighters would feel.”

But Michael James Davis isn’t a firefighter. The then 18-year-old member of the Sutherland Ward, Sydney North Stake, was standing in the driveway of his family’s home, ready to flee in horror as fire surged up from the valley where normally he walks his dog Jess.

The fire was one of about 130 that ravaged much of New South Wales in January, many of them set by arsonists. Nearly 1.5 million acres were burned.

Michael and his father had been trying to pump water from their swimming pool to hose down their house, but the fire got too intense. Firefighters ordered them to evacuate.

“I haven’t prayed so much in a long time,” Mike said. “I felt calm, but I still thought the house was going to burn. Just as long as everyone was safe, that was the main thing.”

Out in the street, he saw “everyone crying and trying to get their children out. All the people in the street, everyone just fled. It hurt me to witness that. That was almost as bad as the fire.”

He and his father joined the rest of their family at the home of some fellow Church members. After 45 minutes, a radio announcement said the fires had passed and residents were allowed to check on their homes.

“First we went to the chapel, to let them know we were safe and to see if anyone needed help. Then we came home to inspect the damage.” Miraculously, their home had been spared, even though the house next door had burned to the ground.

“All around their porch there were thick shrubs, and the shrubs spread the fire to their house,” Michael explained. Everything was gone but the foundation and a children’s play area out in the yard.

At his own house, Michael and his father found that two big gum trees in the backyard had burned completely. An iron fence had melted in the intense heat. And on the back porch, a mop sitting on the wooden deck had burned—the scorch marks are still there—but the deck had not ignited. That’s how close the fire had come.

That night Mike was allowed to sleep in his home. “The air smelled bad,” he remembers. “You could look down in the valley and see the embers glowing in the dark.” He lay there thinking of what he’d learned in just a few short hours:

—“Heavenly Father did hear my prayers. He helped me to be calm, to know that everything would be all right, even though he didn’t tell me exactly what would happen.”

—“There was a lot of help and friendship from the Church, but there was a lot of help from people in the general area as well. I took a walk around an area that wasn’t burning. Everyone was stopping and having a chat and saying, ‘Is your family all right? Is there anything we can do to help?’ These are people I hadn’t ever seen, people who weren’t in the Church, and they were good people trying to help each other.”

Over the next few days, he learned some additional things:

—“Fifteen members of our ward chipped in and bought a new fridge and a washing machine and brought blankets for the people in the house that burned down. They were just renting, but they didn’t have the contents insured. We helped them start getting their life back together.”

—“The worst thing is that police caught people looting burned out houses for jewelry. How people could do that to someone who is already hurt by their house being burned down is incredible to me. I’ve seen the bad side of people and the good side, too. I’ll take the good side.”

Time passed. “Soon we had the pool cleaned of the soot deposited during the fire, and fertilizer greened up our grass.” Down in the valley, green shoots poked through the ashes on the ground.

“Life comes back,” Mike says. “But the memory of this fire will be around for a long, long time.” Even more enduring, however, will be the new understanding of the things that are really important in life, and Mike’s deepened gratitude for them.

Fired Up

For Talia Gollan, 15, of the Emu Plains Ward, Sydney Hebersham Stake, the bushfires were a stark reminder of how disasters can occur without warning. At the height of the crisis, her suburb of Winmalee, in Sydney’s beautiful Blue Mountains, was surrounded by fire. It became the focus of media attention as firemen fought to protect homes.

“I was watching television on Saturday morning when Dad came in and said to pack some essential things in a box and be prepared to leave,” she said. However, Talia displayed a quiet faith that they would be safe.

“Everybody was expecting all of the houses to burn,” Talia says. “The fire was just a street away. But you know, I still felt Heavenly Father would take care of us. Even if something bad did happen, I felt I’d be supported by him.”

While some Church youth were protecting their own homes, others were behind the scenes helping firefighters in their vital role. O’Connor Tau, 14, who lives in the Liverpool Ward, Sydney Parramatta Stake, spent many hours at the chapel preparing food for firemen.

“We helped the firefighters and also made food for people who were stranded on the freeways,” O’Connor says. “I also had the job of collecting bread and other supplies from shops around the area. It was great because many of the shopkeepers were willing to give us the food for free.”

[photos] Photograph of actual fire courtesy of Mirror Australian Telegraph Publications. (Other photography by Richard M. Romney.)